Posts Tagged ‘andre gregory’

Performance Diary: Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer at Town Hall and GRASSES OF A THOUSAND COLOURS

November 27, 2013

gaiman palmer
11.23.13 –
Andy is a huge fan of writer Neil Gaiman and singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, so he bought tickets for their double-bill at Town Hall as soon as they went on sale. The two met when Palmer, formerly half of the Dresden Dolls, asked him to write material for her solo album Who Killed Amanda Palmer? Before long, they were a pair and are now married. In this charming, chatty, intimate concert, we heard a little about their courtship. Early on, in a conversation about the dearth of contemporary torch songs, Gaiman announced that he’d written one called “I Google You.” He sang it for her, twice, and a few days later she sent him a link to a YouTube video of her singing it in concert in San Francisco. For the Town Hall gig, they opened the evening singing a duet on “Making Whoopee,” paving the way for considerably more singing from Gaiman than I expected (and less reading of his work than I would have liked). He’s a Brit and characteristically modest; she’s an American, more brash and with, let’s say, a bigger personality. Weirdly, she often reminds me of my friend, the San Francisco-based performance artist Keith Hennessy (weirder still, I think it’s the powerful legs). Saturday night also happened to coincide with the premiere of the 50th anniversary broadcast of Doctor Who, the long-running British TV show for which Gaiman has contributed a few episodes, so there was a fair amount of fanboy-geekery running between the stage and the audience. The inevitable special guests included Aussie burlesque chanteuse Meow Meow backed by Lance Horne (on loan from La Soiree downtown) and Arthur Darvill, who plays a minor character on Doctor Who and ran over after finishing his show as the lead in Once.

11.25.13 – I can’t pretend I understand what Wally Shawn’s play Grasses of a Thousand Colours is about. When I flew to London to see the world premiere at the Royal Court, I managed a pretty succinct summary of the play in my Performance Diary:

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It’s a big, long, crazy, intense three-act fantasia about a famous scientist overwhelmingly fixated on his penis and his relationships with three different women (his wife, his mistress, and his girlfriend, named for three shades of red: Cerise, Robin, and Rose) and a mysterious shape-shifting cat named Blanche who may be the shamanic double of Cerise and/or possibly God. It’s set in some apocalyptic near-future when some initially successful experiments with increasing the world’s food supply have gone dreadfully wrong. And the stories that Ben and his playmates tell – addressing the audience directly, as is usually the case in Shawn’s plays – teem with images of animals. Eating and fucking. Dick and Pussy. Humans and animals. Andre Gregory’s staging unfolds on a simple stationary set – a long white sofa and two standing lamps – and it interpolates strange little bursts of film that surrealistically mangle the sense of time and place. Wally himself plays the main character, known as Ben or the memoirist, who says things like, “When I was a boy, parents never masturbated in front of their children. In fact, children never masturbated in front of their parents! And God knows children would never make out with their parents or fuck them, ever, because that would have been seen as utterly shocking…So, you see,  for me, the way things are now still seems astonishing – I mean, the fact that people talk about their penises and vaginas in public, at dinner parties, in magazines, and newspapers. I can’t get over it. Ha ha ha!”…

whitecat1
In an endnote to the published text, Shawn mentions that certain elements from the play derive from a 17th century story by Madame D’Aulnoy called “The White Cat.” I don’t know that story, but I will look it up as I continue thinking about this strange strange play, which is a bizarre combination of fairy tale, fever dream, and The Story of O. It’s quite unlike any other play I’ve seen before, except that it bears a distinct family resemblance to other wild, linguistically pungent, sexually transgressive, disturbing and disorienting Wally Shawn plays (Our Late Night, Marie and Bruce, The Music Teacher, The Designated Mourner).

Besides Wally in the central role, the London cast included Miranda Richardson as Cerise, Jennifer Tilly as Robin, and Emily Cass McDonnell as Rose. Seeing it again at the Public Theater, with Julie Hagerty in the Miranda Richardson role, I found that I had no particular advantage the second time around, nor did I find it especially enjoyable to sit through again. (I was somewhat affected by sitting next to Andy, who is a game theatergoer in general but found the play an ordeal.) I admired Andre Gregory’s production less than I did the first time around – for one thing, Jennifer Tilly’s performance has coarsened over time to a one-note bray.  I had mixed feelings about Julie Hagerty, who was definitely wispier than Miranda Richardson. I enjoyed most the freaky dream-like film sequences in which she appeared as “Blanche,” although my strongest takeaway is her deliver of the line, “Last night, as I was urinating on him…”

Clearly there are layers and layers of mischief going on throughout the production, signaled by tiny gestures of sound and movement – every time Ben (the main character) takes a sip of the green potion on his lecturer’s podium, his energy immediately shifts, never predictably. As I explained to Andy and my friends Melissa and Maribel, as we walked to dinner at Noho Star afterwards, my best guess about  the play is that it represents a particular literary phenomenon – Shawn, an excellent brainy and theatrically savvy playwright, has given himself the challenge to follow his imagination, his psyche, his dreams in creating a work that relentlessly and categorically defies the viewer’s attempt to interpret it as any kind of coherent narrative reducible to meaning. Like the craziest, scariest fables and fairy tales ever written, it is a story that exists in relation only to itself.

Oh, one major difference in the production at the Public Theater was that instead of a second intermission, after two and a half hours, we got a five-minute pause, during which an insane array of snacks was handed out in the foyer adjacent to the Shiva Theater – a paper cup containing 5 almonds, a hard-boiled egg, a Lindt chocolate ball, and a silver cup containing a swallow of cranberry juice – served by a chubby whiskered lad wearing a cat mask.

Performance diary: return to THE DESIGNATED MOURNER

July 28, 2013

7.27.13 — I went back to see The Designated Mourner, and I can testify that after five viewings (the David Hare film twice and three live performances) I’m still absorbing new passages and nuances from Wallace Shawn’s extraordinary play about the demise of a politically independent intelligentsia from the perspective of a fellow traveler not especially unhappy about its disappearance. Somehow I’d never paid attention to the fleeting reference by Jack, the title character (played by Shawn himself in the Andre Gregory production at the Public Theater), to the moment when “my thing started – you know, mental problems or whatever you’d call them.” Suddenly, the character’s wayward cognitive associations and gaps in simple human empathy became clearer and more comprehensible to me. Over drinks afterwards, Dave and Tim and I tried to imagine how George W. Bush would describe life in America during his pathetic presidency – what events he would highlight and which he would omit that anyone else would consider important. And we talked a lot about the performances, especially that of Deborah Eisenberg, who plays Jack’s wife Judy. I think most people who see the play will know that she and Wally Shawn are a couple offstage (they’ve been together 40-some years), but not everybody knows that Eisenberg is an exceptionally gifted fiction writer herself. Recipient of many big awards (including a MacArthur Foundation fellowship), she has published several collections of short stories, many of them actually quite long, many of them first published in the New Yorker. (You can read a long interview with her in the Paris Review’s legendary “The Art of Fiction” series here.) She’s not a trained or especially experienced actor, but her performance in The Designated Mourner is compelling for its combination of sculptural stillness and emotional fullness. We sat in the first row directly in front of the wooden chair she occupies for most of the show’s three-hour running time, which gave us a perfect vantage point to study her amazing face.

Deborah Eisenberg

When Andy and I saw the show a few weeks ago, we arrived just after curtain time (7:00! Not 7:30!)  and weren’t seated until 12 minutes into the show, when Wally departs from the script to give a brief recap to the latecomers. This time, there were about 10 spectators who arrived late, and as they were ushered in Wally gave them an entirely different spiel than I’d heard before, and apparently it was new to the other actors because Eisenberg and Larry Pine were discreetly cracking up while he was improvising about the scenes the latecomers had missed. After the show, Wally observed his tradition of standing by the exit available for conversation, and he told me this performance was the best in the run so far. “Only one sleeper,” he noted. (Since the three actors speak most of the time directly to the audience rather than each other, they have plenty of time to study the crowd.) A good chunk of the audience, maybe 20 out of 99, left at intermission, but that didn’t bother him at all: “It was better after they left.”

 

Culture Vulture: Steve Kazee, THE NANCE, THE DESIGNATED MOURNER, Edmund White on Rimbaud, and more

July 10, 2013

CULTURE VULTURE

MUSIC

7/4/13 – Since I’m not a big fan of flag-waving, fireworks, and/or hot dogs, I was happy to spend part of my Fourth of July evening at the Stone, the tiny storefront music venue founded by John Zorn deep in the heart of the East Village at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C. The place is very basic and stripped-down – it sells no refreshments and no merchandise, just music, with a very cheap door charge ($15 tonight). Different musicians curate a whole series of performances each week. This week’s honcho was Eyvind Kang (below center), who has played violin and viola with the likes of Laurie Anderson and Bill Frisell. He lives in Vashon, WA, with his wife Jessika Kenney, a spectacularly talented singer who often appears as a guest for concerts of Javanese gamelan given by the group I play with, Gamelan Kusuma Laras.

7-4 jessika eyvind hidayat honari
For this occasion, the two of them were joined by tar and setar player Hidayat Honari for a program called “Rokh-e Khåk (رخ خاک),” an hour of classical Persian music – new, old, and improvised tunes with texts taken from the poetry of Hafiz, the 14th century Persian mystic. I know Hafiz’s work mostly from the sly, ecstatic English versions by Robert Bly. It was utterly transporting to hear this trio perform this music and to experience Jessika’s amazing, soulful voice communing with ancient Arabic. Apparently, the three of them all study with the same Persian master. It was a sweltering night, so Eyvind thoughtfully created an intermission after half an hour to turn the air conditioning and fan on for a while before resuming.

54 Below Press Preview - Barbara Cook, Steve Kazee & Jonathan Tunick With Rebecca Faulkenberry

7.8.13 — Handsome and talented Steve Kazee’s warm, expressive voice made him a star on Broadway and won him the Tony Award for Once, so I was excited to see his cabaret act at 54 Below. He appeared onstage with his four-piece rock band, the Shiny Liars, two guys (on bass and drums) and two gals (Elizabeth Davis, his fellow Once cast member who’s married to the bass player, and singer-songwriter Lora-Faye Whelan) and performed a set of all original material, which was okay but not especially memorable. He made it a point to tell the audience right away he wouldn’t be singing any songs from Once, and later he mentioned that any women he encountered on OK Cupid who mentioned seeing him in the show would instantly be blocked – which I thought was weirdly hostile. There is something strangely uneasy about his personality – he seemed surprisingly insecure, couldn’t believe how quiet and attentive the audience was, kept apologizing for using swear words, fretted about not having enough material to fill an hour-long show, and floated several negative comments he imagined audience members might be thinking, which came off as defensive, paranoid, not very attractive. Except for a tune about his mother (who died shortly after Once opened on Broadway), much of his material consisted of romantic break-up numbers or “Fuck you” songs, and a picture of him started to form as a bitter, arrogant dick. I’d prefer to believe that he was just very very nervous, and when I went online to check out his website I noted that he had to leave Once prematurely because of an injury to his vocal cords, which would make any rising star pretty unhappy, I should think. 

DVD

greenberg
Greenberg  — I’m fascinated by Noah Baumbach without feeling obliged to see every single one of his films. I caught up with Greenberg via Netflix mostly out of curiosity because it apparently brought about the end of his marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh (whom I admire tremendously) and the beginning of his relationship with Greta Gerwig, about whom I have not formed a definitive opinion. She’s strange-looking, sort of pretty and sort of lumpy, a little like Lena Dunham, although more than anything else she reminds me of Aimee Mann. Gerwig is a brave soul, willing to throw herself into roles that require awkward and unpleasant self-exposure. Actually, that might be a perfect description of the Noah Baumbach School of Cinema: awkward and unpleasant self-exposure. Greenberg certainly demands plenty of that from Ben Stiller, who plays the eponym, a disagreeable chap who’s younger and better-looking yet even more neurotic than any Woody Allen character ever. The running joke of the movie is that he incessantly writes complaint letters. Interesting, quirky film. I liked it, didn’t love it.

Yvonne Furneaux, Eleonora Rossi Drago, Valentina Cortese, and Anna Maria Pancani (from left to right) in a scene from Michelangelo Antonioni's LE AMICHE (1955)

Yvonne Furneaux, Eleonora Rossi Drago, Valentina Cortese, and Anna Maria Pancani (from left to right) in a scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s LE AMICHE (1955)

Le Amiche – Whatever qualities you might associate with Antonioni (long, slow, taciturn, full of dry and not especially sensual shots of women’s naked backs) do not characterize this early (1955) black-and-white film (whose title in English is “The Girlfriends”). It’s screwball-comedy fast with people talking nonstop with the kind of peculiar, fleetly observed comic behavior more familiar from early Fellini and the visual luxuriousness of Max Ophuls, dominated with remarkably strong female characters, many of them modern businesswomen whose romantic interactions with hunky but emotionally immature men don’t follow predictable narrative contours. Some of the acting stays soap-opera shallow but mostly I found the movie riveting and bracing.

THEATER

the nance

7.5.13The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane’s newest play produced by Lincoln Center Theater at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway, honorably intends to convey two lessons about gay history to younger generations: 1) there was a time not so very long ago (the play is set in 1937) when the socially repressive policies we hear about in places like Uganda and Iraq pertained in New York City – gay guys could get arrested just for cruising other men in public; and 2) at the very same time, behavior that was deemed socially unacceptable and legally sanctioned played for laughs on burlesque stages, where the strippers, novelty acts, singers, and vaudevillean comics sometimes incorporated “queer doings,” skits and sketches featuring campy clownish depictions of effeminate men (fairies, pansies, or nances, in the parlance of the day). I’m familiar with the cinematic equivalents of these caricatures, played by the likes of Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton, but I don’t know much about this stage history. Beane apparently extrapolated the germ of his play from some pages in the classic history book Gay New York by George Chauncey; as a tip of the hat, he named the title character (played by Nathan Lane) Chauncey Miller. The play that contains these history lessons unfortunately comes across as a clumsy mixture of musical comedy, romance, and social commentary, with a lot of contemporary political attitudinizing retroactively laden onto a period piece. The politically conservative Chauncey proudly proclaims himself a Republican – but the term had a very different political meaning in the ‘30s and didn’t invite the same sort of badge-wearing it does today. And the romance between Chauncey and Ned, a young guy from the sticks he picks up at the Automat (played by Jonny Orsini), never feels authentic – Beane shoves them around to dramatize the conflict between monogamy-minded nesters (Ned) and intimacy-averse promiscuous guys (Chauncey).

7.6.13Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner takes place in a world that looks similar to ours and yet scary and alien at the same time. The government and the military have started to merge, and intellectual life is coming under siege, at first with occasional and remote acts of repression that become more frequent, more brutal, and closer to home. Shawn himself plays Jack, the title character, the hapless narrator of this tale from his perspective – both intimate and envious — just outside a literary social circle that revolves around Howard (Larry Pine), a prominent poet and the father of Jack’s wife Judy (Deborah Eisenberg). It’s one of the most impressive plays I’ve ever encountered – dense, deep, dark, disturbing, and yet in Andre Gregory’s production at the Public Theater it’s also amazingly entertaining, funny, and theatrical. The same cast and crew did this show at a disused gentleman’s club in the financial district in 2000 for an audience of 30 every night. The production at the Public looks and feels quite different and yet equally intimate and impressive. It’s so easy to think of Wally Shawn as an enjoyable character actor in lots and lots of movies – with this production, it’s impossible not to be bowled over by the mastery of his performance, all the more spectacular because it’s not especially showy or dramatic. Yet his energy and focus and how he manages to surf the play’s mind-boggling swerves from domestic chitchat to philosophical exploration to reporting of horrendous events to smug self-blindness is utterly remarkable. Pine and Eisenberg do equally impressive, haunted performances under difficult circumstances — they are onstage, often silent, always implicated.

designated mourner playbill
I think anyone who cares about theater of substance will want to see this play. I’ve already bought tickets to see the show again. If you don’t live in New York so can’t see the play live, you might be interested to know that there is a radio version of the play available online here: http://www.wnyc.org/articles/arts/2006/jul/18/the-designated-mourner/. And there is a film version of the London premiere production, which is directed by the playwright David Hare and stars none other than Mike Nichols.

At the Public Theater, I was fascinated to observe how Wally makes himself available after the show. He’s just given a relentless and intense three-hour performance, and yet as the audience files out of the theater, there he stands, smiling and open to meeting and greeting anyone who cares to approach. I’ve known him for 30 years and was happy to chat and praise his performance, and he graciously introduced me to Andre Gregory, whom I’d never met and whose work I also cherish. But I also enjoyed observing the different ways that audience members interact with him – from the earnest young theater scholar who’s clearly composed an entire essay about the playwright’s work that he intently wants to share on the spot to the individual who stands 10 feet away and snaps a flash photo without asking. Andy was tickled to meet Wally and also a little weirded out that we’ve now seen three shows at the Public Theater that ended without curtain calls for the actors.

ART

I tried once again to check out Random International’s popular environmental piece Rain Room at MOMA, but even at 9:00, half an hour before the museum opened for Member Early Hours, there were already 50 people in line, which meant standing in the queue for at least an hour, and frankly I just don’t have the stamina to wait that long. That’s how I missed Christian Marclay’s The Clock and the Alexander McQueen show at the Met, and I never even got in line to lock eyes with Marina Abramovic. I’m delighted for the success of these cutting-edge art spectacles, but this waiting in line things seems geared to…whom? People who grew up standing in line for rides at Disney World? Apparently the James Turrell show at the Guggenheim is also massively popular and you pretty much have to build in at least half an hour of waiting time.

BOOKS

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Edmund White’s Rimbaud – I love the whole concept of Brief Lives, the series of short biographies of important people crafted by distinguished contemporary writers that editor/author James Atlas has shuttled around to various major publishers. They are really extended biographical essays rather than definitive histories with footnotes and index – which makes them compulsively readable. I very much enjoyed Wayne Koestenbaum’s Andy Warhol and Edmund White’s Marcel Proust, which came out under Penguin’s imprint, and I just happily gobbled up White’s Rimbaud – The Double Life of a Rebel, another perfect pairing of biographer and subject. Certainly, Rimbaud’s short life lends itself to a succinct biography – he only wrote poetry for four years as a teenager, published in two slim volumes. White began his publishing career writing encyclopedia entries for Time-Life Books, a job that you could say developed and/or exploited his gift for synthesizing vast swatches of information into elegant, witty, erudite prose. Here he digests everything written by and about Rimbaud (doing all the French translations himself) in fewer than 200 small pages. Whether evaluating Rimbaud’s best poems, detailing his love affair with Paul Verlaine, or tracking his dizzyingly peripatetic post-poet life, White’s commentary is informed without being boringly academic or scholarly, and it frequently betrays his own personal touches and obsessions. He notes with amusement that, after his affair with Verlaine made him persona non grata among the culturati of Paris, Rimbaud befriended a diminutive poet named German Nouveau who in letters referred to Rimbaud not by name but simply as “Thing” (“Chose”), as in “Miss Thing.” And a discussion of Verlaine’s medical examination to determine whether he has had anal intercourse veers into this digression:

“If the reader imagines that such examinations belong to the era of pseudoscience in the nineteenth century, he or she should be reminded that in the English town of Cleveland, from January to June 1987, more than five hundred children were forcibly removed (sometimes during midnight raids) from their parents’ homes by social workers because two doctors had determined that they’d all been buggered by their fathers. The doctors were using the highly questionable ‘anal dilation test,’ a sort of inserted balloon. If the children couldn’t grip the balloon with enough force, the doctors determined that they’d been anally violated. Soon there were no more foster families or hospital rooms in the entire region for the ‘victims.’ Ultimately the tide of opinion shifted against the doctors and most of the cases were thrown out of court. The whole unsavory episode was seen as a modern instance of a Salem witch trial. Verlaine’s examination by ‘experts’ had no more validity and revealed the same sort of disgusting prurience. As a result of it, curiously enough, we know more about the condition of his penis and anus than we do about the intimate anatomy of any other major poet of the past.”

Culture Vulture: Stockhausen, two Marys, Andre Gregory, and more

April 30, 2013

Several weeks’ worth of cultural events backed up….

MUSIC

3.23.13 I love the new role that Park Avenue Armory has taken on as a venue for large-scale avant-garde performance art. On the heels of Ann Hamilton’s fun installation The anatomy of a thread, artistic director Alex Poots has planned an extraordinary diverse calendar of events between now and the end of the year. Oktophonie is typical of the programming. This Karlheinz Stockhausen piece is a bombastic, bracingly modern (i.e., unmelodic, unbeautiful) electronic composition that exists on tape, never played live. The score is as much sound design as notes for musicians to play.

oktophonie score oktophonie sound design

Concerts usually involve audiences sitting in a dark auditorium watching a projection of a full moon. For this event, the Armory invited Thailand-born visual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija to design a special environment, and he wittily put the moon on the floor in the form of a round platform.

OKTOPHONIE pic by stephanie berger
All white — the carpeting, the backjacks, and the audience members, who were encouraged to wear white clothing and were also handed a white smock upon arrival.

3-23 oktophonie finale
The show was a little bit of a light show, a little bit of sensuround sound demonstration, a little bit like being on a simulated spaceship at a planetarium show. Also, since we were sitting on the floor looking toward the center of the circle where a blissed-out-looking woman sat operating two consoles (Stockhausen’s longtime colleague Kathink Pasveer, below), there was an odd feeling of being at an ashram or a cult meeting.

3-23 oktaphonie after
Although ultimately not much about the concert stuck with me, it was a beautifully produced event — the Armory gives out a deluxe program booklet (including the score, which is as much sound design as notes for musicians) and maintains an active online presence, both of which provide great educational materials for kids, students, and adults alike.

OPERA

3.27.13 The Gospel According to the Other Mary, John Adams’ oratorio depicting the death of Christ from Mary Magdalene’s point of view, is a companion piece to El Nino, his composition about the birth of Christ as witnessed by women. Both feature texts, compiled by director and longtime Adams collaborator Peter Sellars, taken partly from the Bible, partly from an array of interesting poets (Louise Erdrich, Rosario Castellanos). Mary Magdalene seems to be a butch lesbian political activist whose girlfriend is a former drug addict she met in jail; when Mary M washes Jesus’s feet, it’s the girlfriend who dries them with her long hair. Jesus is played alternately by three countertenor Narrators (theirs is the most haunting music and presence in the semi-staged show) and the guy who also plays Lazarus. Not Adams’ most beautiful score ever but I’m glad to have witnessed the performance at Avery Fisher Hall by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Respectful reception. Composer and director took bows. The conductor was the wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel, who did a fine job.

THEATER 

4.6.13 Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion got a beautiful intimate staging at Classic Stage Company by John Doyle. The intense intermissionless musical is the closest thing to a through-composed opera Sondheim’s ever done – no pause for applause anywhere, which I liked very much. I saw the opening night performance of the original 1994 Broadway production, with its fantastic performances by Donna Murphy as the melancholic un-beauty Fosca, Jere Shea (whatever happened to him?) as Giorgio, the handsome soldier she becomes fixated on, and Marin Mazzie as Clara, the beautiful young married woman he has been attached to. (That show is available on DVD – an excellent live broadcast for Great Performances, much of which you can find on YouTube.)

This smaller production was musically and theatrically very sound, although having both pair of lovers cavort on a hard cold marble floor sacrificed some sensuality (I’ll never forget the lushness of topless Mazzie in the show’s opening number, “Happiness.”) Judy Kuhn made a compelling Fosca, and Ryan Silverman was a fine Giorgio. Melissa Errico, the production’s Clara, was out – her understudy, Amy Justman, sang beautifully but her acting didn’t register much. Many people (including Andy, who came with me) have a hard time buying the plot, believing that Giorgio would ultimately choose to love the woman who’s been stalking him, but I’ve always been able to go along with it. Although Fosca’s obsession seems crazy, she doesn’t demand more of Giorgio than he offers, and it makes sense to me when the purity of her love breaks through to his heart, especially in contrast to the limited conditions of his affair with Clara, who is steadfastly married and not really available.

4.13.13 Bunty Berman Presents… – we took a gamble checking out an early preview of the musical at the New Group, a Bollywood spoof by Ayub Khan Din and Paul Bogaev, directed by Scott Elliott. We loved the New Group’s musical of Dan Savage’s The Kid, and I thought Elliott did a terrific job with Khan Din’s play East Is East years ago. But this was a pathetically lame show in every way, and we left at intermission. Since then, the lead actor, who was clearly floundering, has been replaced by the author, which can only be an improvement.

testament of mary handout
4.20.13
Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary gives us the mother’s account of a martyr’s death, which is somewhat at odds with the narrative constructed by historians, advocates, and media types. There are, shall we say, discrepancies. (I guess we could say this phenomenon is timeless – cf. the press conference given by the mother of the Boston Marathon bombers.)

4-21 mary from the balcony

The best part of Deborah Warner’s theatrical adaptation of Toibin’s monologue is the pre-show interactive art installation. The audience is invited onstage to inspect props and artifacts from the life of Mary, played by Fiona Shaw, who sits inside a Plexiglas cubicle surrounded by votive candles, while a few feet away a live vulture is chained to a tree stump.

4-21 testament vulture
A window in the floor reveals a crypt underneath the stage, as you see in many Italian churches housing relics of saints. The audience is invited, nay encouraged to snap photos with their smartphones, locating the theater piece in our world of nonstop citizen documentation of everything. I enjoyed touring the exhibition, taking pictures, and then standing in the aisle making Mary jokes with Ben Cameron.

4-21 mary crypt
At showtime, audience members take their seats, some of the props get whisked away (the cubicle, the vulture), and Shaw goes into her act. She is a fine actress, I have respect for her, but this performance is so busy and fussy that it becomes bothersome and … I was doing to say distracting from the storytelling, but I have to assume that it’s a choice on the part of Shaw and her director (and longtime collaborator and former love partner) to tell the story this way, as if Mary is traumatized and manic, can’t sit still, has to move and create some active moment on Every Single Line. She’s always moving furniture around, picking up a ladder, putting it down, bringing out a raw fish and cleaning it then throwing it away, getting naked and disappearing into an onstage pool for a minute, for no ostensible reason except to be showy (“I’ll show you, Mark Rylance!”). We walked away pretty nonplussed. Some reviewers loved it; Ben Brantley’s review in the Times echoed my feelings pretty much, though I have to say I didn’t disagree with Michael Feingold’s unremittingly negative commentary in the Village Voice.

ART

4.6.13  I didn’t get around to seeing the blockbuster Jean-Michel Basquiat show at Gagosian Gallery until the very last day. It was great.
basquiat in italian 1983
I so admire the freedom Basquiat took for himself and how he used absolutely everything in his environment, in his mind, in his heart, in his eyes, in his ears to make work.

basquiat la hara 1981
There were constructions I’d never seen before – a fence he’d painted, two six-panel paintings hinged together, collages.

basquiat frogmen 6-panel 1983
Although smaller than the retrospective at Brooklyn Museum a few years ago, this was an impressive representation of Basquiat’s work.

basquiat installation 2 basquiat installation 1
These images make me crazy with joy.

basquiat untitled two heads on gold 1982

I’m delighted that Uniqlo has suddenly embraced Basquiat and Keith Haring as stars of the season, selling some very cool T-shirts based on their work and turning some kids onto these fertile creators who died way too young.

4-29 basquiat label

BOOKS

Spirit Matters by Matt Pallamary is a riveting memoir. Pallamary grew up among criminals and bad boys in Dorchester, a rough white working-class suburb of Boston, and spent his adolescence and early adulthood crashing through all kinds of self-destructive behavior before finding a life for himself as a writer. The prose is clean, clear, spare, honest, and astonishingly free of bullshit. He writes with extraordinary articulateness about subjects that are difficult to address cogently. His digest of Terrence McKenna’s teachings on indigenous North and South American plant medicine is something I’ve been craving for years, and his description of his first ayahuasca retreat in Peru is just fantastic — moved me to tears, cracked me up, and at times had me squirming in my seat with intense identification.

TV

Enlightened – favorable opinions from people I trust led to sample the first five episodes of this HBO series created by Mike White and Laura Dern but I didn’t care for it. Dern’s character is just too fucked-up to be believable – we watch it and can only feel superior to her, which I think is unfair and separates bad/lazy TV from good stuff (in which category I place Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham).

FILM

RenoirGilles Bourdos’ new film portrays the French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir at the end of his life welcoming into his harem a beautiful young model who eventually falls in love with the painter’s son, a soldier who returns wounded from the front lines of World War I (and later goes on to become the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir). Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous. So sensual and beautiful and colorful, and without any of the stale cliches from such biopics (in which artists are repeatedly told how great they are). Superb performances by Michel Bouquet as the old man (who’s so arthritic that his paintbrushes have to be tied to his hands every day), Vincent Rottiers as Renoir fils, and Christa Theret as the mesmerizing Andree.

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Preparing to watch the new documentary about Andre Gregory – Before and After Dinner, made by Gregory’s wife Cindy Kleine – I went back and watched My Dinner with Andre with Andy, who’d never seen it before. I hadn’t seen it since it was made 30 (?!?) years ago, and there was a lot of stuff I hadn’t remembered. I loved the movie all over again. I find Andre Gregory to be a compelling figure, even with all his craziness and grandiosity, the shots of New York City in the early 1980s (especially the filthy subway cars) are fantastic, and the conversation that he and Wally Shawn have over dinner is an extraordinarily deep, fast-paced, far-ranging one. Of course the characters are constructions. I’ve gotten to know Wally over the years – I spent several months just after My Dinner with Andre interviewing him for a profile in Esquire magazine, and I’ve followed his work as a playwright closely with much admiration. In every way, he is an enigmatic figure himself, seemingly open and extremely available and yet quite mysterious.

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It’s great to view the bonus disc of additional material that comes with the Criterion Collection DVD package. There are lengthy separate interviews with Wally and Andre conducted by filmmaker Noah Baumbach that contain lots of little revelations. The restaurant in which the film takes place, ostensibly somewhere in Soho, turns out to be in Richmond, West Virginia. Andre and Wally each tell their own version of how they met, via Renata Adler. Andre: “Men tend to hide. In the movie, Wally is hiding behind silence, and I’m hiding behind words.” Wally: “I’ve always been a fearful person. I was afraid of practically everything. [In My Dinner with Andre] I wanted to destroy that guy in myself who is totally motivated by fear.” Wally also talks about how stubborn and intransigent he was with director Louis Malle when they were trying to whittle the script down to two hours from three hours. “I was very difficult, quite pedantic,” Wally says. “He never said to me, Look, you’re luck that a guy like me is even talking to you. Don’t you get it?

The new documentary about Andre is a mixed bag. I love that Cindy Kleine wanted to make a film highlighting the amazing and influential theater work her husband has done, so he’s not just seen as a kooky character actor. To my taste, though, she inserts herself into the movie too much. She barely mentions Gregory’s first wife and the mother of his two grown children. And judging from the film, she and Wally Shawn can’t stand one another. Nevertheless, she captures some beautiful passages of Andre and Wally’s theater company rehearsing their living-room production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, and there are any number of fascinating stories that emerge about Andre’s family life and his career in film and theater.

Later this year, the Public Theater and Theatre for a New Audience will present “The Wallace Shawn-Andre Gregory Project,” full-scale productions of two of Wally’s plays directed by Andre: The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colours.

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